How Black Friday Got Its Name: Tracing the History from Financial Crisis to a Holiday Sales Boom

Black Friday has a longer history than many might expect.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday have become two of the most iconic shopping days in the United States. For decades, these days have been synonymous with doorbusters, massive discounts, special offers, and the official start of the holiday shopping season.


But what once spanned only two days has taken on a whole other life, with many ‘Black Friday’ sales kicking off immediately after Halloween and extending long past the Thanksgiving turkey leftovers.


If you’re asking “How in the heck did we get here?” and “Where in the world is this going?” You’re not alone (🙋‍♂️.)


Today, we’re pulling back the curtain, taking a look back at how it all got started, from Black Friday's less-than-cheerful origins to Cyber Monday's digital boom, and how they shaped consumer behavior. We’ll also look at examining what this means for eCommerce brands today and how they can come out on top.


Let’s get into it!

The Origin of Black Friday

The term "Black Friday" has a longer history than many might expect, and it wasn't always associated with holiday sales. In fact, the earliest use of the term dates back to the 19th century when it was used to describe the financial crisis of 1869, caused by a gold market crash.


Fast forward to the 1950’s, and a resemblance of the "Black Friday" we know today started taking root in Philadelphia. “Black Friday” was coined by the police to describe the chaos that ensued when hordes of shoppers and tourists flooded into the city in advance of the big Army-Navy football game held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving every year. The day was characterized by traffic jams and crowded sidewalks that “blackened” the streets as downtown stores were slammedfrom opening to closing.


By the late 1960s, the term "Black Friday" had started gaining popularity and was used to mark the beginning of the Christmas shopping season and the hope of stores ending the year profitable (back when accounting records were kept by hand, red ink indicated a loss, and black a profit.)

Black Friday news clipping from the 1960's

Shoppers "blackened" the streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the 1950's

The Rise of Cyber Monday

Jump to 2005 and a new term emerged on the retail horizon: “Cyber Monday”.


By the early 2000’s online monetization had started to become more sophisticated, with Google Adwords starting the era of pay-per-click advertising in 2000 and Amazon introducing its Prime membership in 2005.


A clear pattern had emerged in consumer behavior: many shoppers, fresh from their Black Friday shopping, were continuing their bargain hunting from the comforts of their own home. Retailers noticed a consistent spike in online sales on the first workday after Thanksgiving, likely due to people accessing broadban internet in their office's and continuing to shop. Thus National Retail Federation to officially coined the day “Cyber Monday” as the counterpart to Black Friday’s in-store shopping frenzy.


This strategic marketing move not only catered to the growing demand for online shopping, but also offered a solution for those who wanted to take advantage of Black Friday deals while skipping the long lines and crowded stores.

The first Cyber Monday website dedicated to Monday deals in the early 2000's. Photo: CNN

A Shift in Shopping Behavior

As the years unfolded and competition for customers' attention and dollars grew steeper, brands started testing the boundaries of Black Friday sales and how early they could extend their period of deals. In 2009, Kmart was the first big-box retailer to push their Black Friday doorbusters into Thanksgiving Day, and by 2011, several other retailers jumped on board.


Then, fueled by the pandemic eCommerce boom, online stores started stretching their Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales as well to capitalize on the growing shift in online consumer spending, with sales starting earlier and earlier each year.

Cultural and Economic Impact

Thanks to the growing popularity of shopping in the comforts of home, what once started as a retail-dominated holiday, has quickly spread to an eCommerce Superbowl, where online shopping has not only caught up, but at times surpassed in-store purchases.


Most recently, in 2022, the number of Americans shopping online on Black Friday alone, reached 87.2 million and spent a total of $9.2 billion compared to the $10.8 billion spent at retail stores on the same day.


Early Black Friday Sales Online

Starting sales early can help you get ahead of the competition and avoid shipping bottlenecks. Design by Tyler Deeb for Misc Goods Co.

How do eCommerce brands come out on top?

The trend of extended sales windows from early November through December is becoming the new norm, and signs show it's here to stay. To thrive in this evolving landscape, consider these strategies:


  1. Begin sales early AND switch it up:
  2. Launching promotions well before Black Friday can help you get ahead of competition, shipping bottlenecks, and reduce fulfillment stress. However, if you only promote the same offer for 1+ month, your audience is going to eventually tune it out. Crafting different promotions for each channel, segmenting audiences, and rotating details each week can help keep things fresh.
  4. Focus on ways to engage and retain: 
  5. If we've said it once, we've said it 10 times: acquiring a new customer can cost five times more than retaining an existing customer. This season, work to hone in on storytelling, build trust with your new audience, and convert them to life-long customers
  7. Lean on a Logistics Partner:
  8. Look, try as you might, you can't do it ALL well. Focus your efforts on things that actually move the sales needle, while a fulfillment partner, like Nice Commerce, ensures your fulfillment logistics keeps up the pace.
  10. Clarify return policies:
  11. With extended sales periods comes a need for clear and upfront return policies that lessen your reverse logistic burden and keep customer trust. Need some strategies? We have plenty.
  13. Prioritize Customer Experience (CX):
  14. Having a tip-top customer service plan that provides responsive and helpful support can help win you big points in customer trust and loyalty. We're fans of Aventus if you ever need to outsource.


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